Constable Jeremy Falle started wearing a bullet-resistant vest while working on armored trucks in 1996. He continued wearing a vest after he became an officer with Canada's Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) in 2002.
While OPP has mandated soft body armor for uniformed officers since 1994, Falle hasn't needed a policy to encourage him to wear his vest. He's always known wearing a vest under his crisp uniform is about safety.
"You just wear it like you would a seat belt in a cruiser," he says.
June 9, 2008, was just another day Falle wore his vest. It was also the day that his vest saved his life. Falle responded to a domestic dispute call at a home where a 28-year-old man was experiencing mental health problems. The man's parents had contacted the police when they observed their agitated son with two bottles filled with gasoline, a lighter and a hatchet. Falle, along with his sergeant, entered the residence using a front door key obtained from the suspect's father. Falle held a pistol at high cover and his sergeant held a conducted energy weapon.
Seeing the officers, the suspect threw an improvised incendiary device. The ensuing flashover and explosion caused the front door to slam shut, trapping the officers in a hallway. Flames ignited a substance on the floor and surrounded the officers.
Falle felt the fire, estimated to be 4 feet high, burn his legs, arms and face -- but not his entire body.
"I thought, 'keep going,'" he recalls.
He used his pistol to shoot out the front door's glass pane and exited the inferno, followed by his sergeant.
Falle suffered burns with varying degrees of severity on 36 percent of his body, from his neck up, from his mid-thigh down, and from his wrists to his shoulders.
His hands were protected, and he was able to shoot a gun, because he was wearing his department-issued Kevlar-lined gloves, as he always does on calls.
Suffering massive burns, both officers were hospitalized for a considerable period of time, then continued recovery at home.
Both Falle and his sergeant credit the thermal protection afforded by body armor as instrumental in their survival. Falle says his entire torso area covered by his vest was saved from burns.
During his IACP/DuPont Kevlar Survivors' Club induction, Falle guesses his 2-minute speech was closer to 10 minutes. Since 2008, he has a lot to say about bullet-resistant vests.
"Everyone trains and mentally prepares for a gunfight at some time in their career," he says. "But how many prepare for a mentally deranged male throwing a Molotov cocktail into the hallway they're standing in? I never thought that would happen. These incidents happen in the blink of an eye, and we have only seconds to process and react. Police trainers teach us to win at all costs. Vests give us a mental and physical barrier to carry out that training."
While there are officers who, like Falle, faithfully wear their soft body armor, there are officers who do not. How many consistently wear their body armor is uncertain -- one estimate says about 60 percent. There are U.S. law enforcement agencies that encourage vest wear by mandating it and funding vests for their officers, and there are agencies that do neither. For all, there's one reality: Body armor can only protect law enforcement officers when it's worn. How can more officers be encouraged to wear body armor?
Body armor works
Approximately 3,100 recorded saves in the IACP/DuPont Kevlar Survivors' Club prove body armor works. Those are not the only saves that can be credited to body armor, but they're the saves recorded since the International Association of Chiefs of Police and DuPont in 1987 started a club to record ballistic and non-ballistic incidents in which survivors were wearing body armor.
Two additional examples from the Survivors' Club show how body armor is protecting officers today:
In Nashville, Tenn., body armor protected Metropolitan Nashville Police Officer Carlos Anderson's torso from surface burns and blunt force impact on the roadway. On Nov. 18, 2009, Anderson pulled over a pickup truck for non-working taillights. As Anderson engaged the suspect, the suspect decided he didn't want to go to jail for previous offenses. Standing between the truck and the door, Anderson reached into the truck to extract the suspect who started the truck and drove away with Anderson hanging from the cabin. Anderson hung on, with his legs and feet dragging on the pavement for almost 100 feet. When the suspect steered the vehicle to the right and away from his body, Anderson let go. This allowed him to fall away from the vehicle. Dropping from the truck, he skidded about 15 feet. Anderson was then transported to the hospital where he was treated for road rash burns to his hands, arms, knees and legs, and was released the next day. Before the end of 2009, Anderson returned to full duty.
Anderson's leather gear and his ballistic vest minimized injuries to his torso. The skid across the pavement shredded his pants and shirt. All of his leather duty gear was ruined, but his ballistic vest is still in service.
In South Carolina, Officer Maurice Merritt of the Cheraw Police Department demonstrated he understood the value of body armor by doing something that many might consider counter-intuitive. Merritt had already experienced body armor stopping a bullet from a .25-caliber semi-automatic on Nov. 23, 2007, as a Greensboro, N.C., police officer. That shot caused him to suffer a severe back face signature bruise. On Feb. 22, 2010, Merritt was again shot after initiating a traffic stop. The violator fled, resisted arrest and shot Merritt. Realizing his body armor stopped a shot from a .38 caliber pistol, Merritt grabbed the shooter's gun and pulled it into his vest to avoid being shot outside the vest's coverage area, and the vest stopped a second bullet. A hand-to-hand struggle ensued and the criminal shot Merritt in the shoulder then missed twice. Merritt was transported to the hospital and released after 24 hours. Today, he is on leave to be commissioned a second lieutenant in the South Carolina National Guard.
While the numbers vary somewhat from year to year, Jeff Fackler, with DuPont Protection Technologies, says typically about 58 percent of the Survivors Club saves involve protecting an officer from firearms and weapons that cut or slash. The remaining 42 percent, he says, are saves from accidents or crashes, with vehicle crashes being the most common, 37 percent.
Fackler emphasizes body armor can save officers from more than just bullets. The Survivors Club includes uncommon examples like a chain saw, lightning and an ox gore.
"As we talk more about the value of body armor, officers are more motivated to wear it," he says. "Their knowledge of other equipment is pretty detailed. That's not the case when it comes to body armor. Officers need to have a good understanding of why it's important, how it works, what degree of protection it is designed to provide, how to make sure it fits them, and how to take care of it."
Statistics show real danger
Law enforcement is a dangerous job. Preliminary 2010 law enforcement fatality data released by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF) in conjunction with the Concerns of Police Survivors, show the number of U.S. officers killed during the first six months of this year is up nearly 43 percent. NLEOMF Chairman and CEO Craig Floyd says the fact that 87 law enforcement officers died already this year is a grim reminder that officers still face grave, life-threatening dangers. Specifically, the data show 31 firearm-related deaths, a 41-percent increase over the first six months of 2009, and 42 traffic-related fatalities, a 35-percent increase.
Numbers are not available to show which of these officers were wearing body armor, but studies looking at incidents in which law enforcement officers were fatally shot indicate that 42 percent of those fatalities would have been preventable if officers had been wearing body armor. According to FBI statistics, the risk of sustaining a fatal injury for officers who do not wear body armor is 14 times greater than for officers who do. Those statistics demonstrating increased risk for officers who do not wear vests are highlighted in a 2008 IACP resolution recommending all police executives communicate the importance of wearing body armor and adopt a mandatory wear policy for all uniformed personnel.
Make vest wear agency policy
Ronald McBride serves as the chair of IACP's Police Professional Standards, Image and Ethics Committee and a member of the IACP's Division of State Associations of Chiefs of Police SafeShield committee. After 35 years of municipal police service, he joined the IACP/DuPont Kevlar Survivors' Club team in 2000.
McBride says the answer to the question "How do we get more officers to wear their vests?" is a leadership question.
Just as police chiefs would not let their officers patrol the street wearing sandals or just boxers, he says chiefs should not let officers patrol without wearing their vests.
McBride, who was chief of the Ashland (Ky.) Police Department from 1979 to 1999, says agencies need to have a written policy mandating wear.
But even in agencies with mandated wear, there are officers who don't always wear their vests -- that's why he says agencies need to "inspect for what they expect." Often he hears agencies have a policy but no one ever checks for compliance.
"We have to stop thinking of body armor as being part of an officer's uniform," he suggests. "It's equipment -- it's the defensive portion of the officer's weapons system that keeps officers in the fight when bad times break out, which they do all too frequently."
The Bureau of Justice Assistance/Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) report in 2009 found 59 percent of agencies require officers to wear body armor at least some of the time. The BJA/PERF Body Armor National Survey: Protecting the Nation's Law Enforcement Officers is based on the response of a nationally representative sample of the country's nearly 17,000 law enforcement agencies, of which 80 percent, or 782, responded. PERF says perhaps the research team's most encouraging finding is 99 percent of survey respondents said they ensure body armor is made available to their officers. To help ensure officers actually wear their body armor as much as possible, the report suggests agencies make further improvements in policy and practice. The report suggests agencies provide more controls on the fitting of armor to individual officers and maintenance of armor, and do periodic inspections to ensure the armor is in good condition.
The National Fraternal Order of Police (NFOP) also strongly encourages the use of body armor by law enforcement officers, says Rick Weisman, NFOP director of labor services. Weisman adds, "The issue of making vest wear mandatory is a subject of collective bargaining, in most states that provide for that bargaining."
Management has the right to require officers to wear soft body armor while on duty, according to the Americans for Effective Law Enforcement report in the May 2010 AELE monthly Law Journal. Although AELE adds, "If officers are covered by a bargaining agreement and have been permitted to wear the armor over a duty shirt, management will probably have to bargain a new requirement to have officers wear armor under a duty shirt."
Equipping officers for the job
The AELE report also says, "Oddly, there is no known litigation over whether management must furnish ballistic vests to officers at no employee cost." In Washington State, a 2006 Department of Labor and Industries standard says body armor is personal protective equipment and must be furnished to peace officers by the employer. AELE urges officers to insist that agencies provide and pay for ballistic vests.
Ontario's Police Services Act outlines minimum police equipment standards. Soft body armor is standard issue for all police services in the province, and all police services are required to have policies mandating wear. Officers may wear a vest under their uniform or externally. Since 2003, even operational plain clothes officers must wear soft body armor at all times while on duty.
One of North America's largest police agencies, OPP equips more than 5,900 uniform members and 833 auxiliary officers. For OPP, Sgt. Pierre Chamberland, the agency's media relations coordinator, describes wearing body armor has moved beyond a policy issue to being part of the standard uniform. He says, "The steadfast adherence to policy implementation, coupled with the full support we received from senior management and the employee bargaining unit led to the culture shift."
In Kentucky, the Ashland Police Department is, for the most part, an agency with mandatory vest wear. Any officers hired after October 1995, were hired with the understanding that they would wear their agency-issued vest. Those hired before that date, must at least keep their body armor close by. After 15 years of officer attrition, Maj. Todd Kelley, Ashland PD field operations division commander, says most officers now fall under the mandatory wear policy. Ashland PD provides two carriers: one white and one dark (black or blue) and a ballistic panel, which are replaced according to manufacturers' specifications.
Setting a mandate for new hires and providing the equipment for the officers have been key to the policy's success.
"I think if an agency mandates equipment, the agency needs to provide the equipment," he says.
The Bureau of Justice Assistance Bulletproof Vest Partnership (BVP) can help. BVP reimburses agencies up to half the cost of eligible vests, which can be priced at more than $500. In 2009, funds totaling $22,720,316 were awarded to 3,927 jurisdictions.
To the latest generation of police officers Kelley has observed it would seem more upsetting if agencies don't provide officers vests. They seem to accept soft body armor is part of a police officer's equipment, he says.
"Our policy lets officers know that we, as a department, are looking after our employees," he says.
Even with an agency policy in place, there can be officers who don't always wear their vests.
Lt. Adrienne Quigley is a member of the Arlington Co. (Va.) Police Department (where vest wear is not yet mandatory but a policy is in the works) and has looked at police injuries and what can be done to eliminate them while she was an IACP fellow and worked on the SafeShield project. She created materials including a poster for the Vests Save Lives campaign to promote vest wear.
Quigley says, "Officers' attitudes can be changed primarily through education." When officers understand why wearing a vest is important, she says they wear their vest.
As a 14-year veteran of law enforcement who always wears her vest, Quigley emphasizes there are no excuses for not wearing one.
Reduce sweating and spending
Those who complain about body armor say it's hot and restrictive, and to some extent, the extra, protective layer, by its nature, may always be that way.
Recently more U.S. agencies have been considering external vests, worn over uniforms, to increase comfort and take some of the weight off the gun belt as equipment typically carried on the gun belt can be placed on the vest.
Manufacturers, like Point Blank/PACA Body Armor, continue working to improve comfort by:
- Evaluating new ballistic fiber sources to engineer next-generation hybrids to achieve the optimal combination of weight, thinness and performance.
- Incorporating Outlast heat management technology into the outer carriers. With Outlast technology, testing shows a reduction of sweat up to 70 percent, compared to a carrier without Outlast, thus making the vest more responsive to an officer's work environment and providing additional comfort throughout the work day.
- Tailoring designs to meet specific form, fit and function needs of both male and female officers.
- Providing additional protection against other non-lethal threats. (Point Blank's ThorShield technology provides electroshock weapon protection.)
"Our primary goal is to make officers as comfortable as possible so they want to wear their vests," says Michael Foreman, Point Blank Solutions senior vice president of domestic and international sales.
Point Blank is working to reduce vest weight by 20 to 30 percent, though Foreman, who has 36 years law enforcement experience, emphasizes weight does not equate to comfort -- vest thickness and flexibility also are important.
Capt. Travis Yates, a member of the Tulsa (Ok.) PD for 16 years and law enforcement safety advocate, says, until every officer is wearing a bullet-resistant vest, everyone is accountable and must strive for 100 percent wear.
He begins with officers: "Those of us in law enforcement have no business operating in the mind-set of what 'normally' occurs. If we did that, there would be no reason to carry guns. The majority of officers reading this article will never have a need for their weapon on duty, but we carry guns to be safe on calls. For that same reason, we have to wear our vest. We do this because of what might happen, because of what we know could happen. We owe our family and everyone around us the peace of mind that we will do everything we can to be safe, and that includes wearing a ballistic vest."
As a commanding officer, he says, "If I had an officer working for me and I knew that he or she was not wearing a vest when they were killed, I don't think I could sleep well after that. This job is dangerous enough -- we do not need apathetic managers openly not caring about the safety of their officers. When we do not mandate the wearing of vests, when we don't provide vests, when we don't provide adequate training on a regular basis, we are derelict of our duty in the worst sense."
OPP Constable No. 11282 is IACP/DuPont Kevlar Survivors' Club save No. 3058. More than that, Falle is an ardent promoter of vest wear to those who don't wear their vest, not as a commander, but as someone who does the same job they do. He speaks as someone who once thought as they do, "I won't need the vest," and as someone who wears it anyway to be safe, and is thankful that on June 9, 2008, he did.
Rebecca Kanable is a freelance writer specializing in law enforcement topics. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resolve to improve
In addition to mandating that officers wear body armor, IACP's body armor resolution recommends law enforcement agencies:
- Obtain proper fitting body armor for all law enforcement officers;
- Establish an ongoing program to educate all agency personnel about their obligation to protect themselves, as well as the "life and death" advantages of routine body armor wear; and
- Conduct periodic and regular inspections of issued soft body armor to ensure proper fit and useable condition, and replace defective armor as needed or recommended by the manufacturer.